The Handiwork of Heroes

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

Electric utility lineworkers are everyday heroes who brave harsh weather and danger so we don’t have to endure either. So it was fitting that a lineman rodeo last month near Richmond gave over 120 lineworkers the chance to showcase their skills while family, friends and coworkers cheered them on.

In the misplaced idol worship of youth, as a boy in the ’60s my heroes tended toward professional athletes. Carl Yastrzemski. Bill Russell. Roman Gabriel. All good guys, all outstanding athletes, all paid well by the standards of the time, though hugely underpaid in the absurd salary stratosphere of 21st-century professional sports.

In a world with only three major networks, you would keep up with your favorite athletes by watching them occasionally on TV, and by reading about them in newspapers and magazines. And in a world predating the constantly swirling searchlight of hungry media, the foibles and follies of athletes remained largely unknown, as the trivial, mundane matters they should be, and are.

But today, of course, every foolish comment, tart retort, grudge or grievance, confessional moment, and bellowing boast is covered by a 24/7 media struggling to fill airtime. And, more and more, athletes themselves prime the publicity pump by dispensing gossipy tweets they pass off as relevant news. Few of us — athlete, politician or average man or woman —would see our reputation burnished in such a glass house. And, of course, few do.

So a larger truth I’ve realized as a late-middle-aged adult is that professional athletes should rarely be idolized as heroes. By man, woman or child. They have talents that we enjoy watching, of course. Those talents make the most gifted among them celebrities. But not heroes.

Heroism isn’t about being paid — in most cases, extremely well — to play a game that you enjoy, at which you’re skilled, and for which you receive adulation and applause.

Heroism is instead about sacrifice. It’s about serving others, or a higher cause. It’s about taking risks, putting others first, without thought of personal gain or glory. It’s about police officers … firefighters … emergency responders … schoolteachers … volunteers … soldiers, sailors and Marines … and electric utility lineworkers.

Every hour of every day of every year, there’s a utility lineworker building, maintaining or repairing an electric line somewhere, overhead or underground. It’s difficult, dangerous work that’s carried out by tough-as-leather, smart and savvy professionals who don’t merely put their skills to the test to keep your and my lights on; they literally put their lives on the line every time they climb a pole or into a bucket and ascend to a zone so dangerous that a misstep can take a limb, or a life.

To thank these unsung heroes, every year the regional association of electric cooperatives that publishes this magazine hosts a “lineman rodeo.” During two days early last month, at the 12th annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo north of Richmond, over 120 lineworkers from seven states took part in their own Super Bowl, a chance to engage in friendly competition and test their skills in key areas. Best of all, they got to do so as hundreds of family members, colleagues and friends cheered them on. 

Everyone there was demonstrating, celebrating or supporting this important, dangerous craft, which all of us undoubtedly admire, but to which few are called to make their life’s work.

Those who do answer the call are so good at what they do that the rest of us expect our electric service to be available 24/7/365. When it is interrupted — usually by winter ice storms, spring windstorms, summer thunderstorms, or fall hurricanes — we expect our power to be restored quickly.

So it’s only fitting that these heroes — these “wood walkers” as they sometimes call themselves — be celebrated and showcased at events like last month’s rodeo, and thanked as often as possible. These dedicated professionals don’t ask for, or expect, thanks, which is all the more reason to give it. And for those attending the rodeo, few moments in life can match the emotional power of watching a lineman’s small children gaze in awe as their father skillfully scales a utility pole in the “hurt man” competition, and successfully “rescues” a life-size mannequin.

So, next time you’re watching feats of athletic prowess or nail-biting end-of-game finishes on TV, remember that the heroes aren’t on the screen. They’re behind the set, beyond the outlet, through the wiring, on the other side of the meter.

The electricity that brings you entertainment, information, comfort and nourishment is more than just a flow of electrons.

It’s the handiwork of heroes.

 (To view photos from this year’s rodeo, go to 



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